Thursday, April 7, 2011

More details about my eBook odyssey

While I like the look, feel and overall experience of printed books, I've also been seduced by the convenience of having vast virtual stacks of eBooks instantly available on my PC, iPad and Samsung smartphone.

I also realize that many other readers want to save space, time and perhaps money (and take advantage of cool new features) by shunning slices of dehydrated dead tree mush in favor of books made of bytes. It's also great to be able to supply books to readers in any part of the world that has Internet access, even if there are no nearby bookstores and the cost of shipping books is prohibitive. (One of my eBooks was produced because of a request by a potential reader on an island in the Pacific Ocean.)

By not catering to readers' desires, I may be missing sales and disappointing people.

Over the last few months, I made most of my books available in the PDF format, because it was extremely easy to do, cost me nothing, and the PDF pages perfectly represent the look of my printed pages. I also produced several eBooks that do not yet exist as pBooks, and may never become pBooks.

Alas, despite my affection for PDF, it is just one of many formats (and perhaps the least important of the three major formats) that eBooks are produced in.

Although we are not living through a "format war" like the bad old days of 8-track vs. cassette audiotapes, or Betamax vs. VHS videotapes, the eBook formats seem likely to peaceably coexist for a long time, and I don't want to sit on the sidelines waiting for one to win.

I was reluctant to publish in the "mobi" format used by Kindles, and the EPUB format used by B&N Nooks, Sony Readers and other devices.

(above: Kindle’s display flexibility can produce very ugly results.
 This is part of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Unlike my beloved PDFs, those other formats "reflow" the text to fit the size of the display and the desires of the reader, and can terribly distort the image desired by the page designer (i.e., me).

With a novel or other book that is all or mostly text, that's no big deal. My books, however, tend to have lots of graphic images, and I was horrified by the prospect of them showing up in the wrong places.

Mobi and EPUB books are reformatted to remove page numbering and headers (which I can live without), but I hate the way the pages look when readers enlarge the type on narrow pages, causing terrible word spacing, as with Treasure Island, above.

Perhaps because of this, J.K Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, has stated that there will be no e-versions of her books. (Maybe she’ll change her mind. It took a long time before Beatle songs were available on iTunes.)

Ms. Rowling has collected ample millions from selling pBooks and may not need any more money or fans. I, on the other hand, am not prepared to ignore the desires of the vast hordes who own Kindles, iPads, Sonys, Kindles, Kobis, and similar cool e-reading devices. I

So, what to do?

Since my PDF books are readable on iPads, it seemed logical to devote my first non-PDF effort to providing reading material for the Kindle Kommunity. (Business Week reported that about 8 million Kindles were sold in 2010. If I could have books on just 1%  of them, I'd be a very happy guy. One tenth of 1% would be just fine, too. The revenue on 8,000 $7.99 Kindle books would be nearly $45,000 -- and that number doesn't include the Kindles bought before and after 2010).  

My book that seemed least likely to suffer from reflowing is Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults). While the book has many photographs, there are no technical diagrams or screen shots like my books about publishing or telecommunications.

Some geeks are able to format their own Kindle books. I tried, using Smashwords, Amazon’s own Digital Text Platform (DTP) and other services. I failed and got increasingly frustrated.

Perhaps the process is fine for 20-something geeks, but not for 60-something geeks like me. On the other hand, I am skilled in various ancient arts. I know how to solder wires, change spark plugs and develop film.

There are many services that will make Kindle conversions for money. Prices vary tremendously, and each service's website is filled with glowing testimonials. I had heard good things about Joshua Tallent’s and even mentioned him in several of my books about self-publishing, and assumed I'd use his service.

But, I got sidetracked. (Sorry, Josh.)

Last year, Outskirts Press (the often-inept company I often love to hate) made an intriguing announcement. They would provide most of their publishing services (including Kindle conversion) on an a la carte basis to people who do not buy their publishing packages, and their fee for Kindling is just $135 for outsiders like me (package customers pay 25% less).

Outskirts apparently makes no money from the actual sale of Kindle books. It says, "your profit will be directly deposited into your checking account by Amazon, without any involvement by (or portion for) Outskirts Press. In other words, your Kindle sales are YOUR Kindle sales." 

On books priced from $2.99 to $9.99, the author revenue is 70%. Each $7.99 book I'd sell would net me $5.59 -- a nice chunk. 

Because I have so often been displeased with the Outskirts products and procedures (I wrote Stupid, Sloppy, Sleazy about the company and frequently blast Outskirts in this blog), I was dubious about their conversion process. I also did not like having to pay in advance -- before I know how good or bad their work would be. Frankly, I expected them to do a shitty job, and that I would have blown the $135 with nothing to show for it but another blog post condemning Outskirts.

Alas, it was not meant to be.

Outskirts is difficult to communicate with. Phone calls go to robots and emails are often ignored. But much worse was the fact that the company had not properly thought through the procedure for doing Kindle conversions for people who don't buy publishing packages. Their system is based on converting files already on-hand for making pBooks, and they had no system in place for me to upload my book files.

My questions about this got irritatingly vague answers. Although I was prepared to -- and even hoped to -- say nice things about the company, it became clear that Outskirts was afraid to have me as a customer, and we never did a deal.

There was another problem. Although the Kindle books are readable on iPads with a Kindle app, Kindle books are not (at least not yet) sold on Apple's bookstore site.

I also considered paying Lulu to do the conversion

Lulu previously had a weird policy about selling eBooks to the authors of those books: it was not allowed -- even though Lulu made 20% on each eBook. If you wanted to download a sample of your book, even if you were willing to pay for it, you had to log onto the Lulu website under someone else’s name.

Back in 2007, Lulu announced its “eBook Optimization” service which would allow users to format their books for viewing on Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch, and Sony eBook Readers. The program was canceled.
  • Lulu seems to change its policies more often than some people change underwear.
Lulu has since "gotten its act together." Its storefront is much-improved and much of its math makes more sense. Because I had been pleased with my Lulu PDF books, I decided to try them for an EPUB-formatted book for Apple's iBookstore.

Apple takes a 30% commission. With a $7.99 eBook, I'd make $4.47. That's OK, but significantly less than the $5.59 I'd make on Kindle books.

Lulu charges $99 for EPUB conversions of books with up to 250 pages. If you add just one page (or if you add 250 pages) the price goes up to $199. For 501 to 750 pages, the price is $299. My book has 318 pages, so the price would be $199 -- and I still would not have a book readable on the Kindle. That's a potential deal-killer.

Lulu warns that:
  1. "The ePub conversion takes 6-8 weeks. In some instances conversion may take longer." That's a potential deal-killer.
  2. "In the case where the complexity of the manuscript file requires work outside the scope of our service, we reserve the right to .  .  .  do the conversion with a minimum charge of $100 an hour. That's a potential deal-killer.
  3. "As there is a great deal of work done to evaluate the files before the full conversion is processed, there are no refunds on this service. In the event more work is needed to convert your file, you may incur additional fees. That's a potential deal-killer.
  4. "Creating an ePub version of your book will not guarantee distribution on 3rd party external e-readers. That's a potential deal-killer.
  5. "Books which contain lots of charts, formulas, tables, and images can be converted, but the process will take longer, is more expensive, and may not yield optimal results. That's a potential deal-killer.
The fact that I'd been unable to upload a revised file for one of my PDF books for over a month and my queries had not been answered, was the final deal-killer.
Lulu boss Bob Young is proud to sell bad books.
He doesn't have to.
 Fuck you, Bob.

Lulu is a company I generally dislike and disrespect because of the poor quality of many of its printed books and the cynicism of the Lulu boss. Bob Young told Publishers Week­ly thatWe publish a huge number of really bad books.

  • However, the Lulu eBook publishing system for PDF books is free, extremely easy to use, and profitable for the author. On an eBook that sells for $5, Lulu keeps just $1.
  • The critical weak point about selling PDF books on Lulu's website -- or selling any books on Lulu's website -- is that approximately zero people go to the site to buy books. It ain't Amazon. Or even Borders. If you have books for sale on, and I have nine books there, you will have to drive traffic to Lulu.
So, after my detour, I was ready to send my files to Joshua Tallent’s (Despite its name, it does format books for readers other than the Kindle.) Unfortunately, I learned that there would be a two-month delay before my book could be done. 

The fates, gods and muses were smiling on me that day, however, because I received a press release announcing the services of

I was impressed by the company's ultra-friendly website, phone calls with Ryan Levesque and emails with boss Bo Bennett.

Bo says, "I created out of my conviction that an author should have an inexpensive, simple, and truly fool-proof way to get their book converted to eBook format, and submitted to the major online retailers fast."

eBookIt does exactly that,

I am extremely happy with the company's quality, speed, responsiveness and price (just $149 for multiple formats). The eBookit website is easy for even a non-geek to use. It's always easy to see what work has been done, what has to be done, and to review communications with the eBookIt staff. The eBookIt site is a model for online customer service. Other companies should emulate it.

Some of my emails were answered within minutes, and I don't think I waited more than 24 hours for any of them.

OTOH, I've been waiting since January for responses to my emails to Lulu. Amazon sometimes responds quickly, but in a language that just barely resembles English: "In regards to your query, we request you to contact lightning source directly, so that they would be able to do the needful." Lightning Source usually does respond promptly, but somehow the answer is seldom not what I want it to be (no six-by-nine hardcovers with white pages).  CreateSpace usually responds the next day, but the robotic response is often completely useless.

I needed to request multiple changes after I uploaded my file to eBookIt, and the additional work was done promptly, and without any additional charges. That was a pleasant surprise, especially in view of how much Lulu can charge for changes, and the cost of the dreaded 251st page at Lulu.

After my approval, my eBook was immediately available from the company's website, and it took just a few days to be on sale at Amazon and B&N. After a week, it was available on lots of eBook sites, including important American bookstores like Powell's, and even bookseller websites in England and Australia.

I highly recommend


  1. I received an e-mail from, too. I was reluctant to use their services because I don't like paying anyone to format my books without knowing the quality of their work beforehand.

    I, like you, don't have books that are text only. They contain many graphs and tables, which used to not convert very well. But now they do.

    I may look into now that you've mentioned it.

  2. I appreciate your hard work into the reliability and response times of these self-publishing companies.

    Your comment on Bob Young gave me my first hearty laugh of the day. I was so close to signing up for their services.

    I too am in the "twilight" years of my life and quite often find my head spinning from all the information provided on the internet. But then, I have a hard time choosing pantyhose when given more than two choices.

    Thanks again. I will look into Ebookit if I decide to go the self-publishing route.

  3. Thanks for your comments. I'm presently trying to decide between eBookIt and Smashwords. I'm especially encouraged that you are happy with how pictures are handled by eBookIt.